Picture the scene: the curtain swings open, the lights of the Barbican fade up. Benedict Cumberbatch sidles onto the stage, fringe bobbing.
Claudius: …but now my cousin Hamlet, and my son…
Hamlet: [To the audience, sarcastic] A little more than kin, but less than ki…
[A deafening roar, like a Zero plane crashing into a Beatles concert. It goes on for a minute, three minutes, seven. It shows no signs of stopping. It’s getting louder.
Cumberbatch struggles to be heard over the braying, but it’s useless. Ten minutes. Polonius shrugs and lights a cigarette. What’s the point?
The pitch rises, then breaks. Cumberfans rush the stage, many in deerstalkers. An understudy is trampled underfoot. Laertes swats at a 15 year old Sherlockian with his plastic sword, but it’s useless, they have him.
Hamlet disappears in a sea of cosplay and selfies. They grab at him, squealing like a slaughterhouse, wrenching locks of hair from the royal scalp. In the background, the Kingdom of Denmark falls backwards, revealing yet more fans swarming through the backstage area. They are all screaming. Everyone is screaming.
As blood bakes onto the footlights, the reviewer from the Evening Standard underlines the word ‘arch’ in his notepad. Headline: ‘To be or not to be? Elementary, my dear Watson.’ Three stars.]
Chances are you will have read a lot about Benedict Cumberbatch’s turn in Hamlet, which opens tonight at the Barbican in London. How fast the tickets have sold out, how many miles fans have travelled, the decision not to sign autographs at the stage door.
Through it all there is a snide assumption about the sort of person who would spend such a lot of money and time to see their idol on opening night: that they are childish, hormonal, obsessive stalkers. They don’t belong in a theatre, they belong in a padded cell.
The ‘Cumberbitches’ – as the media insists on calling them – are a much storied phenomenon, and as someone who writes about Sherlock for a living, I know they are a potent force. But the idea that they will act like screaming imbeciles is lazy stereotyping, incredibly insulting and misunderstands the nature of fandom.
You will not find a more receptive audience for Hamlet than Cumberfans. For one, their hero is known for playing geniuses, and Hamlet is the sensitive intellectual’s posterboy – Morrissey in a codpiece. This is a smart audience who values intelligence. They are not drooling morons who can’t last through a soliloquy without Tweeting. In fact the fanbase are ready to police themselves, sending out guidelines for how to act in a theatre including (sweetly) ‘spoiler warnings’ about particular aspects of the production.
Shakespeare is not ‘above’ Sherlockians. Cumberfans are a diverse group, and many will already be as obsessed with the Bard as they are with Baker Street. And even if they aren’t familiar with the play, the Cumberhorde are nothing if not observant. This is a group that pores over nine episodes endlessly, reciting and quoting, analysing and extemporising. They are used to close reading.
Of course the applause at the end will be rapturous, but Cumberfans have waited a long time for this. Why would they ruin it for themselves? There is more likely to be a respectful, awed silence during dialogue than shrieking. David Tennant, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen are all stars of both stage and sci-fi conventions. Their fanbases are a benefit, not an annoyance. Yes, at intermission you’ll occasionally see someone in full Starfleet regalia queuing for ice cream, but no-one is throwing sonic screwdrivers on stage.
I saw Tennant play Hamlet in 2008 and will always remember a group of young fans huddled in the lobby, removing the batteries from their mobile phones. They carefully put the batteries in one sandwich bag, the phones in another, then zipped them all into one rucksack and entered the theatre.
Later, as Tennant delivered the flesh soliloquy, I spotted a middle-aged man in a blazer sending a text.
Perhaps this is at the heart of the media’s Cumbersnobbery: we are not mocking them for being obsessed, but for caring at all. For the weary elite, visiting the theatre is a diversion, a date in the diary, a review to be written. But Cumberfans are wholeheartedly passionate about Benedict Cumberbatch. Seeing him on opening night is a major event, something to anticipate, savour and remember.
Their enthusiasm should be envied, not mocked, and I hope as many of them get to enjoy their hero as possible.
Do the rest of us deserve our tickets? That is the question.